Using ‘content farms’ and other means, Chinese elements are suspected of generating much of the disinformation that has been circulating concerning the Tsai administrations’ pension reform plans. They have also helped mobilize protesters. J. Michael Cole looks into this worrying interference in Taiwan’s democracy.
Taiwan’s national security apparatus on Monday confirmed that a recent wave of increasingly virulent protests against President Tsai Ing-wen’s pension reform efforts have been influenced by China.
According to government information, Chinese elements (presumably agencies involved in political warfare) have played a role in mobilizing protesters and spreading disinformation about pension reform via electronic media. Various web sites, as well as the LINE instant communication tool, have been used to disseminate “fake news” about the government’s plans. The national security apparatus has confirmed that the information originated in China.
Besides domestic online platforms, China has also been using microblogging sites in China, as well as WeChat and popular “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) such as COCO01.net to spread disinformation and interfere with government policy back in Taiwan.
Content farms are platforms that pay large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of content that is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. While such platforms were initially designed to generate advertising revenue, groups and regimes have quickly realized the potential of content farms to manipulate public perceptions. Using techniques that have been tried and tested by authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, “repeater stations” — online and traditional media that willingly take part in “fake news” efforts or that fail to properly corroborate information — are then relied upon to broadcast the disinformation to a wider audience.
On several occasions, anti-independence slogans were chanted at the protests against pension reform, which also suggests that the movement has been co-opted by the Chinese side.
Over the past six months, members of Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) have also been identified at various protest sites. Chang, who in an interview with foreign media in 2014 confirmed that he works closely with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), led members of his organization at an anti-pension reform protest outside the Legislative Yuan in April. Since 2013, the CUPP has also been involved in activities targeting independence activists and members of civil society in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chang is also a former head of the Bamboo Union, a major crime syndicate in Taiwan with roots in China.
Physical violence is also a m.o. of those organizations, and the protests against pension reform have often led to violent clashes, resulting in injuries. Other organizations with a history of violence, such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have also participated in the protests.
Worryingly, protest organizers appear to have insiders in Tsai’s security apparatus — retired members of the police and national security apparatus ostensibly still have good contacts within the active force — and on several occasions have been able to obtain details about her daily schedule and itinerary. The groups have threatened to shadow President Tsai and Vice President C. J. Chen and thus could compromise the leadership’s personal security. Last week organizers also threatened to disrupt the upcoming Universiade in Taipei.
Taiwanese authorities have been closely monitoring the developments and have implemented measures to counter the disinformation.
Top photo: Members of the China Unification Promotion Party protest outside DPP headquarters in 2015 (J. Michael Cole).
When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered her inauguration speech after being sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20 last year, she pledged to build a better nation for younger generations. The first and foremost task in fulfilling that goal, she said, is to reform the nation’s cash-trapped pension system that would otherwise go bankrupt within a decade. Stacy Hsu looks into the history of and the many challenges associated with this endeavor.
Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-dominated legislature passed the pension reform bills targeting retired civil servants and public-school teachers amid fierce protests in late June, the country’s pension system was a “political time-bomb” that many leaders before Tsai had tried — and failed — to defuse.
At the center of the problem are two notorious absurdities in the pension schemes of retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers: the so-called 18% preferential interest rate and abnormally high income replacement ratios.
The preferential interest rate can be dated back to as early as 1960, when Taiwan was under authoritarian one-party rule. In light of inflation and the relatively low salary received by public servants back in the day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime issued a series of administrative orders to offer a preferential saving rate on civil servants’ pension payments in a bid to ensure their financial security after retirement.
According to the Examination Yuan, the administrative body in charge of managing public servants, the saving rate has undergone several adjustments since its introduction, from the initial 21.6% to 14.25% in 1970, 16.7% in 1979 (with the rate floor at 14.25%), and then to 18% (also the rate floor) in 1983.
The preferential interest rate was scrapped following the implementation of a new pension system in 1995, which increased civil servants’ pension benefits by allocating part of their monthly income to the pension fund, rather than relying on the government as the sole contributor.
However, it did not quash the controversy surrounding it, as public servants who were hired before 1995 were still entitled to the saving rate after retirement. (The amount of a retiree’s pension payment that is eligible for the interest rate depends on a public servant’s pre-retirement income and number of years of service prior to 1995.)
The meeting minutes of the Presidential Office’s Pension Reform Committee show that as of June last year, approximately NT$462 billion (US$15 billion) in pension payments from about 457,000 public-sector retirees were stored in bank accounts eligible for the 18% interest rating, putting a NT$82 billion dent in government coffers each year.
The committee’s deputy convener, Lin Wan-i (林萬億), estimated that the interest rate would not really become history until 2054.
Though the saving rate had its historical necessity, today it is mostly seen as a remnant of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, one of the roots of social injustice, and a form of political payout by the previous KMT authoritarian regime to cement support among the nation’s civil servants, which has in turn created an uneven playing field for political parties.
Due to the preferential interest rate and/or public-sector employees’ ostensibly “unfair” pension calculation formula, some of their actual income replacement ratios (the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income) could be over 100%. This means they could earn even more in retirement than they did when they were on the workforce.
In 2006, despite leading a minority government, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP sought to reform the preferential interest rate. However, instead of gradually phasing out the rate, he only managed to cut down on the amount of pension payment from which a retiree could earn the interest rate by putting a cap on their income replacement ratio.
Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT, also made pension reform one of his policy priorities, describing the problem as so dire “people will regret it tomorrow if we do not reform it today.”
The Ma administration established a pension reform task force to solicit public opinions in 2009 before rolling out a draft plan in 2013. Despite the efforts, the plan was stalled at the KMT-dominated legislature at the time — allegedly due to electoral concerns and overwhelming criticism of what president Ma called a “painful decision” to cut year-end bonuses for public-sector retirees in 2012.
Failed efforts by her predecessors and fears of further alienating the DPP among public servants should have deterred President Tsai from making another attempt. Instead, she put pension reform at the forefront of her policies and joined hands with DPP lawmakers in ramming pension reform bills that many deem drastic through the legislature.
Under the bills passed so far, the 18% preferential interest rate will be reduced to zero two years after the bills’ promulgation scheduled for July 2018.
In addition, civil servants and public-school teachers (the draft bill for military personnel is yet to be drawn up) will see their income replacement ratio reduced to 60% within 10 years and ultimately be required to calculate their pension payment based on their average monthly salary in the final 15 years of employment, rather than their last month of service as currently stipulated.
Tsai’s reform success has reflected in her approval ratings. According to a survey by the TVBS poll center on July 12, the president’s support rate has climbed to 29%, from 21% in June.
Such efforts, however, are not without their costs. President Tsai has been shadowed by anti-reform protesters, some of whom have threatened to use violence or to disrupt events such as state visits by foreign presidents or the upcoming 2017 Universiade in Taipei. The KMT and its spin-off, the People First Party, are mulling filing a request for a constitutional interpretation on pension reform legislation.
Just as in other countries, pension reform is almost always a magnet of unpopularity and fierce protests. A good leader will know when to overlook temporary noises and focus on the long-term good.
Amid a worldwide deterioration in freedom of association and expression, civic activists must urgently discuss how a more enabling environment can be created for civil society organizations (CSO). Last month, a Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID) workshop, co-sponsored by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, provided such an opportunity. Alison Hsiao gives the highlights.
About 6 billion people live in countries where civic space is either closed, repressed or obstructed, according to the latest findings by the CIVICUS Monitor made public in April.
“Only 3 percent of the entire population around the world live in countries where space for civic activism is truly open,” Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told a workshop in Taipei last week, citing the report.
According to Maria Teresa Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, there is a global trend toward shrinking and closing civic space, with governments “not only in the south but also in the north” implementing restrictive laws hindering and disabling conditions for CSO formation, registration and operation.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-ruled China is known for the limited maneuvering room for NGOs and civic movements. It has recently attempted to further restrain civic activities by unveiling, in April 2016, the Law on Management of Domestic Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations.
The law requires overseas NGOs, which arguably have enjoyed more freedom in China and therefore have served as a critical source of resources and information for domestic NGOs, to report to the Ministry of Public Security rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs as domestic NGOs must do, and to find a sponsor or “business supervisory unit” for registration, according to Chan Kin-man (陳健民), associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
“The sponsors could be difficult to find as they would have to shoulder political responsibilities [if the NGOs cross Beijing’s red lines],” Chan said, adding that exceptions are possible for “sponsors” seeking financial opportunities in those NGOs and for those that have guanxi (political connections).
With recent developments surrounding the new legislation, “the grey area that Chinese NGOs used to enjoy is disappearing,” he said.
“The large third sector is expanding, but civil society is actually shrinking in China,” as Beijing continues to crack down on dissenting groups while supporting “governmental non-governmental organizations,” a term Chan used to refer to “NGOs” supported by government funding and which therefore adhere to the government’s agenda.
Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, also told of the barriers facing CSOs in Vietnam.
Vietnamese CSOs, like their counterparts in China, need government approval before receiving international aid, she said, adding that it usually takes six months to a year before permissions can be obtained — if at all.
A draft law of association was put forward by the Vietnamese government in 2016 — “supposedly committed to creating an enabling environment for the CSOs, but in reality, there was no outside participation in the drafting process” — and if passed, would create a more restrictive environment for CSOs, Nguyen said.
Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, discusses tightening regulations in Vietnam.
The situation is equally dire in the Philippines. Despite his earlier announcement on negotiating peace with the country’s communist groups that have been waging armed resistance for the past 48 years, “[President] Duterte announced [in May] that he’s going after human rights defenders” and “[just in the night before the workshop took place on May 24], martial law was declared in Mindanao,” Lauron said.
As the above cases make clear, the development of civic space in Asia faces extraordinary challenges. According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space. (The conspicuous absence is Taiwan, which is colored grey, without information on the evaluation map.)
According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space.
Akio Takayanagi, policy adviser at Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, outlined the depressing state of affairs in Japan, which is generally regarded as a developed democracy, citing the World Press Freedom Index that put Japan in 72nd place in the ranking of media freedom in 2017, a stunning gradual downgrading from 11th spot in 2011.
Additionally, an “anti-conspiracy bill” — pushed by the Japanese government and passed by the House of Representatives — could “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression,” United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci warned.
If it becomes law, the bill will allow the authorities to “criminalize acts of preparation to commit crimes such as terrorism,” Takayanagi said.
The Taiwan model
Left out by the global assessment, Taiwan has proven an encouraging exception to regional and global trends.
Tracing the transformation of CSO-state relations in Taiwan, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, said that beginning with the democratization movements in the 1990s, the country’s CSOs have moved from external control to free association and self-governance, from state monitoring to self-discipline and accountability, and from state dependence to public empowerment.
Nevertheless, there are problems that need to be resolved to ensure a better functioning of CSOs in Taiwan and to strengthen its civic space. Jay Hung (洪智杰), Taiwan AID executive director, noted that while most CSOs in Taiwan align themselves with government requirements concerning internal management, “disclosure of financial reports and work plans to the general public, however, is not mandatory,” which could generate doubts with the public.
There is also the problem of “being strong in domestic affairs but lacking in global thinking and actions,” said Chien Shiuh-shen (簡旭伸), a professor of development geography at National Taiwan University, adding that activists over the years have sometimes worked too closely with the long-time opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and lost momentum after the DPP assumed power for the first time in 2000.
Chien Shiuh-shen of National Taiwan University discusses the ‘Taiwan model.’
But the second democratic “alternation of ruling party” in Taiwan in 2016 has helped push legal and social change, which bodes well for the country’s civic space.
Amendments to the Civil Association Act, which regulates all “people’s groups” including political parties, civic groups and occupational associations, as well as new laws mulled by the government, would further strengthen regulations governing NGOs by enhancing their transparency and changing the language governing the establishment of civil associations from “applying for approval from the authorities” to “registration.”
Activists and CSOs have also “learned the lessons” from their experiences during the first transition of power, including the notion that they should “never say yes to the government all the time,” even if the ruling party was once an ally, Hsiao said.
Chien cited the ruling by Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan on May 24 in favor of same-sex marriage as a demonstration of Taiwan’s profound social progress, three decades after the lifting of martial law.
This is an experience in development that can be shared among Asian countries as the “Taiwan model,” he said, “which is in the social dimension” and is different from the “four tigers” type of economic model upheld in the past.
Enabling environment for CSOs
Besides sharing the Taiwan model, there exist global frameworks that, if observed, could help create a more enabling environment for CSOs, among them the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Goal 16.10, which encourages governments to “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms,” and Goal 17.17, which urges governments to “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships,” for example, are civic-space promoting, said Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, USA.
Anselmo Lee, secretary-general of the Asia Democracy Network, also weighed in.
“We have to remind the governments that it is their legal obligation” to follow those frameworks developed by the global organization of which they are members, he said.
Meanwhile, the mere presence of regulatory or policy frameworks, or more quantifiable socio-economic development (GDP, life expectancy, literacy and so on), which some argue indicates the existence of an enabling environment for CSOs, may fall short of being comprehensive, Valot said.
The capability approach, first conceived by Amyarta Sen in the debate on welfare economics and defining individual’s wellbeing in terms of their capabilities to achieve their goals, has been applied to assess the environment for civil society, Valot said. It not only means that the socio-economic environment, which should include gender equality and equity in general, but also socio-cultural (participation trends, tolerance, trust), political/governmental and legal environments (civil society infrastructure, state effectiveness, policy dialogue, rule of law, and so on), have to be taken into consideration, he said.
Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, discusses the widening gap between countries and social groups.
Cultivating an enabling environment therefore requires both government input and CSO efforts. Trust between the two needs to be built and CSOs have to work on their professional capacity and undertake self-regulation to be seen as dependable actors, Lauron said.
Global networking is crucial, especially people-to-people exchanges. “Every Philippine activist is also an internationalist because we see that the problems facing the Pilipino society are not limited to our domestic context but must be situated” in the world economic and political context, Lauron said. “Political education among activists and civil society is therefore important as we have to know the forces we’re confronting with in order to develop new strategies and for the approaches to be effective.”
Lauron was responding to concerns raised by Chien about civil movements being restricted to the local and domestic level without global connections.
To share the “Taiwan model” or other experiences of civil society across countries, “we must move beyond organizations and formal institutions [that tend to be] distrusted by citizens and society,” Rutzen said, adding that one effective approach lies with youth engagement.
Lauron echoed this sentiment.
“A new generation of civil society leaders and movement leaders need to be developed; seeds can multiply,” she said.
While Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice. Specialists and victims of sexual and gender-based assault from around the world took part in a workshop organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy last week. Stacy Hsu reports.
Standing in front of a packed room full of participants at a workshop on ending sexual and gender-based violence in Asia on May 24 — part of the three-day East Asia Democracy Forum organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy — 18-year-old Taiwanese Victoria Hwang (黃靖茹) electrified her audience with her vivid account of the sexual assaults she suffered at far too young an age.
Hwang was 10 when a close relative raped her at her home. Due to the belief that “the ugly should be kept within the family” and the unfortunate Asian culture that regards sex as a taboo subject at home, Hwang’s parents neither called the perpetrator out nor provided their daughter the emotional comfort she desperately needed.
Instead, they tried to pacify her by saying that the family relative only touched her because “he liked her.” Until this day, Hwang is forced to face her rapist at family reunions every year. The worst part? She has to pretend nothing happened in order to maintain household harmony.
At age 15, Hwang was sexually assaulted by a male friend, to whom she admitted she was attracted. The man also justified his action by saying he had feelings for her. The excruciating realization that she could not turn to her parents for help, or talk to someone about what had happened to her, led to her being diagnosed a year later with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Read Your Pain founder Victoria Hwang.
Hwang’s trauma was not only caused by the two people who sexually violated her, but also a patriarchal society’s tendency to silence rape survivors. “If this society does not allow rape victims to tell their truths, they will never acquire the strength and support they need,” Hwang said.
Fortunately for Hwang, she stepped out of the shadows after realizing later that she had to overcome her fears and get her story out there for society to listen and change its traditional mindset. She also initiated a scheme called “Read Your Pain,” which publishes the stories of victims of sexual violence anonymously to help facilitate their healing process and raise awareness of the issue.
The 18-year-old’s successful transition from “a rape survivor to an activist” may seem encouraging, but many more victims of sexual assault remain encumbered by past trauma in the darkest corners of the world.
As Garden of Hope Foundation chief executive officer Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容) said in her opening remarks at the workshop, while Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice.
“How to empower these victims to help them through trauma, and make society realize they are not responsible for what happened to them, are the goals most countries are working towards,” Chi said.
Chi’s views were echoed by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Vice President Ketty W. Chen (陳婉宜), who believes the entrenched practices of “blaming the victims and assuming they must have done something wrong” are the greatest impediments to an appropriate societal attitude toward sexual violence and their survivors.
Though Taiwan currently has a relatively comprehensive sexual-assault safety net — including prevention campaigns by authorities and women’s rights groups, as well as an administrative mechanism of mandatory reporting of suspicious rape cases — there is still much room for improvement.
The time-consuming legal process for solving sexual abuse cases, coupled with a lack of gender awareness among some judges and prosecutors, can add to the already heavy psychological burden of victims, Chi said.
Chi gave the example of a recent case where a migrant worker was sexually assaulted three times by her employer. “The authorities, convinced of the existence of an emotional bond between the assaulter and the victim, concluded that the sexual acts were consensual and decided not to prosecute the case,” she said.
Education is another aspect that requires more emphasis, said Wang Yue-hao (王玥好), deputy chief executive officer of the Garden of Hope Foundation, singling out the common misconception that most sexual offenses are committed by strangers, while in fact in most cases the perpetrators are acquaintances.
Lee Ping-chang (李炳樟), a specialist at the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Mental and Oral Health, also warned against the association of rapists with mental illness, saying that less than 10 percent of sex offenders are actually found to have psychological problems.
“That is why we should focus more on monitoring them [sexual assaulters], rather than treating them,” Lee said.
Such a mistaken belief also prevails when people think about violence against women, said Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah, who formerly served as executive director of the Selangor-based Women’s Aid Organization.
“Violence against women is not a mental health issue, but one rooted in gender inequality, power imbalance and discrimination,” said Josiah, adding that alcohol, work-related pressure, or financial difficulties are merely enabling factors of such violence, as opposed to the primary causes.
Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah.
Whether it is sexual or gender-based violence, there was a resounding consensus among the workshop participants that more action by both government and communities is needed to resolve the problem.
All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano stressed the importance of government funding for shelters for victims of physical violence. According to statistics provided by Kusano, physical violence at the hands of a husband in Japan is the cause of death of a wife every three days.
Kusano said her organization took the initiative in establishing the first shelter for victims with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in Japan in August 2014, but the project only lasted eight months and fell apart shortly after they ran out of government subsidies.
All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano.
Although almost every country today provides shelters and emergency hotlines for violence survivors, Josiah said community involvement is still vital to helping battered women and their children.
“While it is easy to find help in a small nation like Taiwan, in big countries like India, you cannot find services everywhere,” Josiah said. “So there is a lot of work to get the community to stand up to provide service to each other.”
As to what can be done next to further combat violence against women, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs gender specialist Crystal Rosario offered an interesting suggestion: Incorporating gender-sensitive elements into soap operas.
Rosario’s idea resonated among many participants, including Josiah, who urged TV producers to come up with popular drama shows that challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them, as most Korean soap operas tend to do.
Other suggestions included providing interactive and educational touring plays to local community centers, launching campaigns that better engage men on gender equality, and offering re-education for members of society.
Re-education is particularly important at a time when people have started to see sexual assault and domestic violence as social norms, Josiah said, adding she regretted that only sensational news stories, such as one about a woman being raped by 20 men, receive public attention nowadays.
“We should really try to change and challenge this mindset,” she said.
Taiwan Foundation for Democracy vice president Ketty W. Chen.
Women’s group Gabriela secretary-general Joms Salvador.
From democratic recession to the rise of ‘fake news,’ authoritarian influence to accusations of Occidental imperialism, freedom around the world is under assault. Global experts and NGO luminaries met at TFD in Taipei last week to brainstorm and find ways to fight back. Alison Hsiao gives us the highlights.
Challenges confronting democracies, running the gamut from fake news to repression of civil society, are real, grave and on the rise, experts from around the globe warned during the fourth annual East Asia Democracy Forum held in Taipei last week. The experts called on democracies and civil societies to join efforts to safeguard freedoms against authoritarianism and to reinvent and strengthen democratic institutions in the face of repressive regimes’ negative propaganda.
“Democratization and democratic consolidation around the world not only have stalled. According to scholars who study democracy, the world is now experiencing a democratic recession,” Taiwan Foundation for Democracy President Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉) said in the opening remarks.
“When dictators are perfecting their rule by learning from each other, we must not only keep a watchful eye on our democracies. We must also improve and strengthen our democratic systems and defend democratic values, so authoritarian regimes cannot take advantage of the weaknesses of democratic procedures and use them against us,” he added.
Taiwan Foundation for Democracy president Hsu Szu-chien, right, makes remarks during the East Asia Democracy Forum in Taipei.
Hsu’s points were resoundingly echoed by the speakers at the forum. Louisa Greve, Vice President for Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Global Programs at the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, also raised concerns over a democratic retreat, with democratic norms assaulted, civil society repressed, information space polluted and kleptocracy rife.
Russia and China are two non-democratic regimes whose presence and practices loomed large in some of the mentioned malaise. Greve pointed out that both countries in recent years have passed laws restricting the activities of civic groups and posed a threat to both online information and the halls of power.
China’s new non-governmental organization management law that came into force earlier this year, for example, targets both Chinese human rights lawyers and activists and foreign NGO workers and scholars, as manifest in the detention of Swedish citizen Peter Dahlin and Sydney academic Feng Chongyi (馮崇義).
Louisa Greve, Vice President for Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Global Programs at the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, speaks at the East Asia Democracy Forum.
Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲), who since mid-March been detained incommunicado by Chinese authorities for “jeopardizing national security,” is another example. The cases demonstrate that “from a free country or not, you can be easily affected by other countries’ human rights [deteriorated] conditions,” said Chiu Eeling (邱伊翎), secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.
Democratic institutions could also be seriously compromised and corrupted when authoritarians are allowed, with the use of corrupt money, “to project their influence across borders in order to finance their campaigns to make the globe safe for authoritarianism,” Greve said.
“Awareness and recognition” is where we could begin to respond to the challenge of kleptocracy, which is “transnational, new and require[s] us to adjust our thinking,” she stressed, offering by way of example how residents of London could take action by creating a “kleptocracy tour” to see which neighborhoods have Russian oligarchs buying luxurious real estates.
Chiu Eeling, secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.
Equally disquieting for democratic communities, said Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), are fake news, digital disinformation, and the slow adaptation by democratic institutions to new technological changes.
A global cyber security firm went through all the social media posts “supposedly from protesters in a series of riots about the death of an African American man in Baltimore who died in police custody because of alleged mistreatment,” and found that a vast majority of them actually originated from Russia, China, India and the Middle East, Hubli said.
“Well over 100 pro-Trump websites are registered in Veles, Macedonia, a 55,000-person town,” he said. “During the [U.S. presidential election] campaign, a young group of entrepreneurs were earning tens of thousands of U.S. dollars on fake news, pro-Trump websites and stories they just invented out of thin air.”
Scott Hubli, director of governance programs at the National Democratic Institute.
Fake stories sometimes can just be funny, but when they are completely preposterous, they can still be believable for those who frequently visit highly politicized websites even if they look ludicrous to mainstream politicians or traditional media, Hubli warned.
And retraction of fake news “rarely works,” for when — and if — those are noticed the damage has usually already been done, he added. “You can’t combat the fire hose of falsehood with a squirt gun of truth.”
How, then, do we save democracy in a digital age? Hubli said we should try to better understand our own disinformation vulnerabilities, integrate the discussion over these issues into the international infrastructure for election monitoring, disrupt the economy of fake news by advocating to tech companies who can reduce the financial incentives for disinformation, and “pre-bunk” disinformation by strengthening public media literacy and sensitivity.
What’s more fundamentally at stake, Hubli added, is the reinvention of democratic institutions. “A lot of disinformation narrative is showing how ineffective democratic models are or that they are equally corrupt and bad [as the authoritarian models].”
Creating a more informed public and actively engaging them with democratic systems that have been long criticized as insufficiently representative, is precisely what Josh Wang (王希), one of the initiators of Watchout and Congress Investigation Corps – two Taiwanese platforms aiming to lower the threshold for familiarizing the general public with substantive political discussion – have been advocating.
Josh Wang, one of the initiators of Watchout and Congress Investigation Corps.
His teams have set up websites where Legislative Yuan documents are visualized with graphs and videos of Taiwanese lawmakers’ remarks (the absurd and the insightful), during question-and-answer sessions are edited for public reference.
“Making politics fun” and the nation’s congress more open and transparent is what has inspired the teams. Political parties, incumbent lawmakers and challengers had their voting records and expressed stances listed and visualized during the most recent 2016 legislative election, for example. The teams also continued to function as a watchdog after the new legislature took office, arranging for lawmakers to meet face-to-face with young electorates and to be bombarded, as government officials are by them during the legislative sessions, with questions.
The threshold to politics, however, proves to be of different heights for different groups.
Violence against women in politics (VAWP) is a serious hurdle for women around the world. “Violence targeting politically active women makes it more difficult to build sustainable and resilient democracy,” said Crystal Rosario, a gender specialist at the NDI.
“Too many women are told that when they experience this violence that it’s just the price of doing politics, but violence should never be the cost of politics,” she said.
In 2016 the NDI launched the international “Not The Cost” campaign to bring awareness and encourage action to end it. “While violence against women is often associated with domestic violence and trafficking, VAWP has been defined as a range of gender-based harms that seek to force women into a subordinate position with men,” said Rosario, adding that while the extreme form may be assassination, more often, this violence “takes the form of persistent harassment and psychological, physical and sexual abuse.”
In Mongolia, women in politics, as in many other Asian countries, face systematic discrimination such as traditional and social norms preferring “strong men” in the political arena, said Erdenechimeg Badrakh, Executive Director of Mongolian Women’s Fund. Issues about women’s rights are also more than often easily brushed aside or stalled in the parliamentary discussion, she added.
For many more people from the south hemisphere, however, gender justice is more than about challenging gender injustice or gender inequality, as what lies at the core of this injustice is economic policies and institutions that deeply entrench the social inequalities, according to Tetet Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE).
Talk about gender justice needs to “go beyond the notion of women’s empowerment that has been promoted by the World Bank and other similar institutions,” she said.
Tetet Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness.
Gender justice is not a single, separable issue, Lauron added, but one to be integrated in the macro-problem of the world’s “obscene inequality,” to which women and girls are particularly vulnerable, and to achieve gender justice would mean “deconstructing those institutions and policies that work against not just women but all people claiming their right and striving to have a voice of their own and the power to imagine their own future.”
Asia and the Community of Democracies
The extent to which people have moved closer to creating a more equal and open society varies greatly in different parts of the world. In Asia alone, the answer also varies dramatically across the region.
Asia is a region where countries are unequally developed, with some, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, having developed relatively stable, democratic and open systems, and others that are governed by semi-democratic or outright authoritarian and closed regimes.
While challenges to democracy were emphasized in the forum, Greve said counterexamples in the region are cause for hope.
It took 50 years after the country’s post-independence military coup in 1962, in 2012 – with democratic movements budded and oppressed during the dark days – that Burma had its first genuine democratic election. “The fruit of the struggle came after a long period of repression, and now Burma has open elections in the context of partial democracy in the constitution,” Greve said.
Sri Lanka suffered decades of forced disappearances and brutal civil war that ended with tens of thousands of civilian casualties, “and yet the voters of Sri Lanka overcame these deficits and had a peaceful election which surprisingly threw out the long-serving family dynasty,” she said.
Despite experiencing Beijing’s increasingly constraining measures and tightening control in the recent years, Hong Kong has seen a rising young generation of democracy fighters, Greve said. Quoted Martin Lee (李柱銘), a Hong Kong political activist who has lived under both British colonial rule and the current Chinese sovereignty. “What gives me hope is to find people who were not born at the time of the handover in 1997 are now leading the struggle for democratic rise in Hong Kong.”
People power recently manifested its force in the ousting of corrupt political leadership in South Korea as well, but Jung-ok Lee, professor of sociology at Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, still believes there is cause for worry when it comes to South Korean society’s conception of what underlies the country’s democratic institutions.
A “haunted question” that has been repeatedly raised in South Korea, and probably in most East Asian countries, is that whether the idea of democracy and human rights came from the West or dovetails with East Asian traditions, Lee said.
Those doubts, Lee said, originated from the fact that South Korea’s modern nation-building was unlike that of Western countries, which started with “civil society initiatives based on rights, duties and creation of collective will.”
“When asked about democracy, many South Koreans recalled resistance and demonstrations. We have created our democratic identity via resistance, but that is not enough,” she said.
Kaori Shoji, professor of political science at Japan’s Gakushuin University, shared the same concerns for a people lacking commitment to genuine democratic principles.
“Democracy in its form itself is not enough,” she said, citing Japan’s nearly 60-year one-party dominance as a cause of unease. “We have to strive for substantive, pluralistic democracy with [an authentic and workable] multiple-party system.”
From left: Kaori Shoji, professor of political science at Japan’s Gakushuin University, Jung-ok Lee, professor of sociology at Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, and TFD president Hsu Szu-chien.
For many Japanese, the motivations for supporting a functioning civil society are not for sustaining democratic institutions per se but out of a “pacifist attitude or [other] single issues such as anti-nuclear energy,” especially for members of the old generation who had first-hand experience of the Second World War and are keenly aware of what Japan did in and around Asia, Shoji said.
People do not appreciate democracy, which was “given by the [Allied] Occupation force to Japan after the war,” and human rights are often considered Western in Japan, with conservative politicians attacking the notion, saying it is too individualistic and detrimental to Japanese traditional values, she said.
Enmity to this supposed “non-Asia-ness” has been acutely palpable for Shoji, who doubles as chair of the board of Amnesty International Japan.
NGOs are often considered “Western” in Japan and NGO workers advocating certain issues are regarded as “foreign surrogates,” she said, adding that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that “Asia has a limited voice within the international NGOs.”
Shouji called for more effort and networking to be undertaken to change the status quo.
The Community of Democracies (CoD) is a platform where such networking could occur. The intergovernmental coalition was established in 2000 under the premise that governments around the world “need to come together to help strength democracy in countries that have already made democratic commitment,” said Robert Herman, Vice President for International Programs at the U.S.-based Freedom House.
A critical premise, agreed to by the group, is that there is “no such thing as a perfect democracy, as all democracies are in some evolutionary process,” learning from each other, he stressed.
It is also agreed that civil societies have an important role to play in consolidating democracies, Herman said.
The Civil Society Pillar – one of the affiliated bodies at the CoD and of which the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy is currently a board member of its standing International Steering Committee (ISC) – is where the organization “aims to facilitate close dialogue with civil society around the world, even in places where it faces challenges and restrictions.”
But the operations of the CoD are not without difficulties or critics.
Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, a Co-chair of the ISC, hinted at one of the problems by openly calling, two days before the deadline, for applicants to the position of secretary-general of the CoD, which is expected to be vacant with the incumbent’s two-year term soon to end, and pointing out that there was no one lining up to succeed the U.S. to be the next presidency.
The U.S., which current holds the presidency, was described by Herman as one of the countries that are on the CoD Governing Council but at the same time witnessing “democratic backsliding,” which constitutes a further challenge to the world’s community of democracies in the present era, where “new authoritarianisms and global assault on liberal democratic institutions and values” have already put democracies on the defensive.
How is Asia faring with CoD networking? Gus Miclat, executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue from the Philippines, questioned what India, South Korea and Japan, the three Asian CoD Governing Council member states, have been doing across borders with each other and with other democracies in the region.
Anselmo Lee, executive director of the Korea Human Rights Foundation and secretary-general of Asia Democracy Network, echoed those views and asked why no statement was issued by Asian countries, unlike the U.S. and Europe, when incidents such as the military coup in Thailand occurred.
“Like-minded countries in Asia” should be brought together and put the mission of CoD into practice in the region, especially during a time when everybody is talking about democratic regression, he said.
“In order for CoD to be relevant to us and to the lives of people of the community of democracies, you have to have impact. Now it’s low-key if there at all, but politically [the impact] is a bit wanting,” Miclat said after pointing out that the organization lacks public recognition.
The highlight of the CoD may be the invitation process every two years. where it is decided which democracies are to be invited as participating members based on their democratic performance against the CoD guidelines, Miclat said.
“But no one knows the implications [of the invitation process]” if it is not publicized, Miclat said, adding tha publicity and analysis of the invitation process is what is needed for the CoD to have more impact.
There is also “a glaring contradiction [in how CoD works] in the region,” he continued. “There is a vibrant democratic government that is not a member of CoD” due to the “strong lobby of a country that is not even democratic and not a member of CoD.”
Miclat was referring to Taiwan and China. “This is a contradiction we need to address head on.”
From left: NDI’s Crystal Rosario, Scott Hubli, Louisa Greve, TFD’s Michael Kau, and TFD’s Hsu Szu-chien.
Although the ruling by the Council of Grand Justices fails to resolve the dilemma between amending the Civil Code or enacting of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the judges to support their ruling indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values. Stacy Hsu reports.
A large crowd of gay marriage supporters standing anxiously outside the Legislative Yuan on May 24 cheered after Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices ruled in an unprecedented move that the Civil Code’s prohibition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and demanded the law be amended within two years.
The ruling, titled Interpretation No. 748, states that the Civil Code, which currently prevents two individuals of the same gender from creating a permanent union for the committed purpose of managing a life together, is in violation of people’s constitutionally protected freedom of marriage and right to equality.
Article 972 of the Civil Code stipulates that an agreement to marry shall be made by “the male and the female parties” in their own concord.
The ruling accordingly urges concerned authorities to amend or enact laws within two years in accordance with the Interpretation, but allows them to decide in what manner they intend to achieve the equal protection of the freedom of marriage.
As the Interpretation enables homosexual couples to register their marriage should the authorities fail to complete relevant law amendments within the given timeframe, it could pave the way for Taiwan to become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.
The constitutional interpretation was issued in response to separate requests filed by the Taipei City Government and gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei (祁家威) in 2015. Chi has sought legal recognition of his union with his partner in the past three decades. His latest attempt, in 2013, was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court in September 2014, prompting his request for an interpretation.
Gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei, who initiated the appeal to the Council of Grand Justices, waves the rainbow flag during the 2016 LGBT Pride parade in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)
The case has attracted tremendous attention both at home and overseas since the Council of Grand Justices held a closely watched hearing on same-sex marriage on March 24 this year.
Supporters of homosexual unions staked their hopes on the Interpretation after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration gave signs it was stalling efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in the Legislative Yuan due to pressure from religious and conservative groups.
Several amendments to the Civil Code to recognize same-sex marriage cleared a legislative committee in late December 2016, but they have yet to be put on the agenda for a plenary review.
The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.
The delays were also partly due to divided opinions among lawmakers, even within the DPP, on whether to recognize homosexual marriage by amending the Civil Code — which is deemed by conservative opponents as detrimental to the traditional family structure — or enacting a special law, which has been criticized by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups as discriminatory.
Although Interpretation No. 748 fails to solve the dilemma between amendment of the Civil Code and enactment of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the Grand Justices to support their ruling today indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values.
The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.
The ruling also refutes the myth that homosexuality is reversible, arguing that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic decided by many contributing factors and that homosexuality is not a disease.
Another argument frequently cited by opponents to same-sex marriage was also dismissed by the Interpretation. It stipulates that since the Civil Code does not make the ability to procreate a prerequisite for a heterosexual marriage, reproduction should not be seen as an essential element of marriage nor used as an excuse to deny homosexual couples their right to marry.
So far the ruling has met with vastly different reactions. Opponents of same-sex marriage have threatened to request another constitutional interpretation or to take the case to the Control Yuan for an investigation, while supporters have expressed their pride in “being Taiwanese.”
Both the Presidential Office and Legislative Yuan Speaker Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) said they respected the Interpretation, pledging to handle future legislative efforts with a tolerant and understanding attitude. However, as lawmakers from different parties remain divided on how to legalize same-sex marriage following the ruling, the road to achieving marriage equality in Taiwan may still be bumpy.
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Physical violence and denial of access to members of the press are two tactics that have been used with alarming frequency in recent months by civic groups bent on blocking legislation proposed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. J. Michael Cole reports.
Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.
As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.
More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.
Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.
On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.
On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.
According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.
During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)
Photo: Yahoo News
Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.
Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.
The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) and the Permanent Secretariat of the Community of Democracies (PSCD) today opened the 2017 CoD Youth Forum at TFD headquarters in Taipei, bringing together young human rights activists and academics from around the world to discuss the many challenges facing democracy.
Titled “Strengthening Youth Participation in Democracies Worldwide,” the three-day workshop is one of the first CoD events to focus specifically on youth and their role in democracy.
Nearly 40 speakers and participants, from countries as varied as Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, Mongolia, Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Morocco, Pakistan, the U.K. and the U.S., are taking part in this year’s workshop. Among the participants from Taiwan are Lin Fei-fan, Wei Yang, Poyu Tseng and Jennifer Lu.
Among the topics discussed at the panels are “Security and Democracy: Extremism, Cultural Bigotry and the threats to Democracy,” “Unbalanced Globalization: Impact on Democracy,” “Effective Youth Participation – The balance between social movements and political participation,” “Global Youth Solidarity for Democracy,” and “Establishment of a Youth Pillar.”
According to the workshop manual, only 1.65% of parliamentarians around the world are under the age of 30 and less than 12% are under the age of 40, while the global average age of parliamentarians is 53.
“Despite the age eligibility for national parliaments starting at 25 in more than a third of countries around the world,” it says, “citizens under the age of 35 are rarely found in political leadership positions — political institutions, parties, parliaments, election bodies and public administration.”
As a result, it continues, “It should come as no surprise that, with limited opportunities for inclusive participation in decision-making processes, youth feel excluded and marginalized in their democracies.”
Since meaningful democracies require the participation of youth, the 2017 CoD Youth Forum “aims to develop proposals to the question how can youths be more engaged and included in democracies.”
TFD President Hsu Szu-chien, right, delivers opening remarks at the CoD Youth Forum held at TFD headquarters in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)
In his opening remarks on April 19, TFD President Dr. Hsu Szu-chien expressed his hopes that the Youth Forum, held as Taiwan celebrates the 30th anniversary of its democratization, would set a precedent for future youth empowerment, an area of democracy promotion that has not received as much attention as others over the years.
More than ever, with the rise of populism, the lure of extremist movements, trends suggesting an erosion of democratic traditions worldwide and authoritarian regimes like those in China proposing would-be alternatives to a liberal-democratic world order, young people need to be empowered and to be better informed about the ramifications of non-democratic systems of governance, Hsu said.
While dialogue can provide the platform for countries to help each other to democratize, he said, it is also essential to help counter democratic reversals such as have occurred in recent years.
“TFD wants to be part of that effort,” he said. “It’s a fight.”
Dr. Matyas Eörsi, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Head of Administration, Finance and Human Resources at PSCD, discusses democracy during his keynote speech at the CoD Youth Forum in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)
In his keynote speech, Dr. Matyas Eörsi, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Head of Administration, Finance and Human Resources at PSCD, struck a more positive note.
Despite the many challenges and reversals observed worldwide — exemplified, among other things, by U.S. President Trump’s congratulatory remarks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the passing of a referendum on Sunday that will fundamentally alter the Turkish constitution in ways that have human rights watchers deeply worried — we should remember that during the Cold War almost everybody growing up in the shadow of Soviet authoritarianism believed that the Soviet Union was eternal.
Decades later, and with the Soviet empire relegated to the history books, the Arab Spring proved once again that authoritarian regimes with the most powerful intelligence services and the savviest diplomats — countries like Mubarak’s Egypt — could be brought down by the people.
Turning to democracy, Eörsi said the term didn’t mean much unless it provided a platform for dialogue and the means to resolve the dilemma between human rights and the choices of the majority. That dialogue, he added, necessitates a parliament, a free press that can scrutinize the mechanisms of power, and a civil society. Without those, democracy as self-reflection cannot occur. And without self-reflection, there can be no room to change, or to improve, the system.
Eörsi described the Community of Democracies as a “democratic United Nations.”
“There is much talk about democracy at the UN, but little tangible is done,” he said. “Part of the reason is because nearly half of UN member states are not democratic.”
Headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, the Community of Democracy was founded in 2000 under the Warsaw Declaration, a ground-breaking document signed by 106 countries in support of democratic transition and consolidation worldwide. TFD is an International Steering Committee member of the Civil Society Pillar of the Community of Democracies.
The CoD 2017 Youth Forum runs from April 19-22.
Dr. Ketty W. Chen, Vice President of TFD, left, discusses issues with former Sunflower Movement leader Lin Fei-fan (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Abdellah Eid, 23-year-old from Rabat, Morocco (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Thevuni Kotigala of Sri Lanka, left, and Jatzel Roman Gonalez of the Dominican Republic (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Andrzej Kostek Head of Logistics, Events and Procurement, Permanent Secretariat, Community of Democracies, right, gives an overview of the Community of Democracy’s operations (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
TFD President Hsu, left, with Dr. Michael Y. M. Kau, Senior Research Fellow at TFD (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Whether they are the result of new regulations in China governing foreign NGOs, the application of vague national security measures, or factional politics in the lead-up to an important CCP congress later this year, two incidents in late March suggest that it may be getting increasingly dangerous for NGO workers and activists to visit China. J. Michael Cole investigates.
The disappearance and detention of Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese rights activist and staff member at Wenshan Community College in Taipei, by Chinese authorities last month could have a chilling effect on the willingness of Taiwan-based human rights workers and NGOs to put their personal safety at risk by operating in China.
Lee, who formerly worked for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was seized upon entering Zhuhai, in Guangdong Province, via Macau, on March 19. Lee reportedly travelled to China four or five times a year and often discussed human rights and democracy on social media with contacts in China. According to initial reports, on this particular trip he was heading for Guangzhou to secure medical treatment for this mother in law. It wasn’t until 10 days later that the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office confirmed that Lee had been detained for “activities that endangered national security.” The TAO, however, did not give specifics as to the nature of Lee’s “illegal” activities, nor did it provide clarification on where he was being detained. So far it also has not permitted “humanitarian visits,” as stipulated in Article 12 of the Cross-strait Joint Crime Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement.
Lee’s predicament could be the first clear instance of China’s latest regulations on foreign-funded NGOs (which include those based in Taiwan) and new National Security Act, implemented in 2015, targeting a Taiwanese national. The vague definitions of threats to national security stipulated in the Act, along with Beijing’s position that the provisions also apply to Taiwan, ostensibly account for Lee’s detention. Whether the Act or the new regulations on foreign-funded NGOs was used to detain him remains to be determined, as does the nature of his purported infraction(s), which could range from the promotion of democracy through contacts in China to Taiwan “separatism.”
His detention also coincides with a chilling of relations between Taipei and Beijing following the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP in January 2016. However, Beijing’s refusal to allow Feng Chongyi, a China-born associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney and Australian permanent resident, for almost a week in late March suggests that the enforcement of new National Security Act and/or foreign NGO regulations — not tensions in cross-Strait relations — may have been the principal cause of the decision by China’s security apparatus to detain Lee.
Lee’s detention may also have been in retaliation for Taiwan’s arrest in early March of Zhou Hongxu, a Chinese university student in Taipei, for espionage. Another possibility, advanced by individuals who are in regular contact with civil society in China, is that factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have led security forces to capture Lee (and, possibly, to detain Feng, who was also submitted to long interrogations at his hotel in Guangzhou) in order to “embarrass” President Xi Jinping ahead of the important CCP congress later this year. The timing of Feng’s brief detention, coming during a state visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, reinforces the view that internal politics — the jockeying between the Xi and Jiang Zemin factions — may have been a factor. Lastly, it has also been suggested that Lee’s detention may be part of efforts by a segment of the Chinese security apparatus, dissatisfied with Xi’s failure to take a harder line on Taiwan, to cause a controversy in cross-Strait relations. By presenting him with a fait accompli (Lee’s arrest for “endangering” national security), President Xi’s enemies have made it difficult for the Chinese leader to order Lee’s release lest he be accused of being soft on national security.
After sustained global media coverage and an open letter signed by several dozen academics, Feng was eventually allowed to depart for Australia on April 1; as a condition for his release, he was made to sign a statement agreeing that he would not give details of his questioning or where it took place.
Unlike Feng, Lee’s case has received much less international attention, notwithstanding press conferences at the weekend by various NGOs, including one by former Sunflower Movement leaders Lin Fei-fan, Chen Wei-ting and Huang Kuo-chang, in which Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong also participated. The lack of international pressure could conceivably make Lee’s release less likely.
Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, announced at a press conference late last week that she will go to China to secure her husband’s release but will not retain legal counsel there as doing so would give the appearance of “legitimizing” the regime and China’s unfair legal system. Various Taiwanese agencies said they were working behind the scenes to find out more about Lee’s whereabouts, the reasons for his detention, and to secure his release.
Lee’s case will undoubtedly exacerbate fears among Taiwan’s NGO community that their activities in China may also subject them to arbitrary arrest and detention. Despite China’s assurances that Taiwanese are protected by the law, the incident will likely have a chilling effect on interactions between Taiwanese and Chinese civil societies. The possible cooperation of Macau and Hong Kong authorities in the rendition of suspects to China proper also indicates that the special administrative enclaves may no longer be safe for individuals who are deemed “dangerous” by the Chinese government.